Can Groupthink also be Useful?

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Probal DasGupta
CEO, United States

Can Groupthink also be Useful?

Even though Groupthink is largely negative, it is not all bad. Software Engineering has spawned a new software development paradigm that actually utilizes the negative effects of Groupthink for a very positive use.

What is Groupthink?

Janis (1972) defines Groupthink as “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (p. 9). Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (Janis, 1972, p. 9).

Janis (1972, 1982) identified at least eight common symptoms of Groupthink:
--1-- Illusion of invulnerability (Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks)
--2-- Collective rationalization (Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions)
--3-- Belief in inherent morality (Members believe in the righteousness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions)
--4-- Stereotyped views of out-groups (Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary)
--5-- Direct pressure on dissenters (Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views)
--6-- Self-censorship (Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed)
--7-- Illusion of unanimity (The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous)
--8-- Self-appointed ‘mind guards’ (Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions)

How to murder Critical Thinking in 5 easy steps

One step and another, and our thinking goes asunder. Groupthink is a progressive and collective mind “disease”.

--- Step-1 ---
Janis (1972) identified very strong group cohesion – which is otherwise a wonderful quality in a group - as the primary antecedent condition. This is the first step, and is a necessary condition for Groupthink to occur.

--- Step-2 ---
Very strong group cohesion becomes disastrous only when complemented by a sleuth of secondary antecedent conditions – also called situational antecedent conditions – such as some or all of the following:
(a) Presence of a serious external threat;
(b) High credibility of fellow members;
(c) Insulation from critics;
(d) Low individual self-esteem in one or more isolated members;
(e) Incidence of recent failure;
(f) High complexity in current decision-making process and so on.
(Janis & Mann, 1977, Janis, 1982; Hogg & Hains, 1998)

--- Step-3 ---
These antecedent conditions collectively promote or cause a tendency for concurrence seeking among group members.

--- Step-4 ---
This tendency for concurrence seeking produces a plethora of Groupthink symptoms:
(a) Overestimation of the group’s invulnerability, innate strength, smartness, and moral superiority.
(b) Underestimation of the enemy’s invulnerability, strength, smartness, and moral justness. In other words, the enemy is seen as vulnerable, weak, stupid and morally corrupt.
(c) Self-censorship prevents individuals from speaking their minds, thereby creating an illusion of unanimity; and, self appointed mindguards create pressure of uniformity.

(Janis & Mann, 1977).
--- Step-5 ---
The symptoms lead to faulty decision-making and defective decisions, such as some or all of the following:

(a) Insufficient information review
(b) Inadequate consideration of worst-case scenarios
(c) Insufficient contingency plans
(d) Failure to consider the full range of decision options


Five easy steps to killing critical thinking:

1) We need a group that has very strong cohesion.
2) The strong group cohesion has to be complemented by a set of secondary conditions (listed earlier).
3) The combination of #1 and #2 causes concurrence seeking amongst group members.
4) Concurrence seeking produces a set of groupthink symptoms (listed earlier).
5) The symptoms lead to faulty decision-making.

The result can be -- disastrous!

When is Groupthink useful?

“Never” is the traditional response, as there are many common, oft-quoted examples of the high profile failures caused by Groupthink, ranging from the Bay of Pigs to the recent Iraq war.

However, a software engineer would challenge blind condemnation of Groupthink, and suggest that while the label itself is obviously blacklisted in common parlance, some of the elements of this perceived “group ailment”, are actually benefiting corporations everywhere. Deep inside the geek-world of the IT departments, there is a quiet (or, sometimes not so quiet) revolution in the way software is developed. It is a relatively recent innovation called the Agile Methodology of Software Development. Let’s define this new software development methodology in terms of the metaphor of “taking a journey into the mountains” as described by Rowden (2001).

Traditionally software development followed Rowden’s “North American Rockies” model, where “the organization would scan the horizon and spot the summit,” and design a software engineering project aimed at taking that summit. In the olden days (up until the mid-90’s), this approach worked, and was called the Waterfall Model in IT parlance.

But Y2K is now a distant memory, and we have closed the first decade of the 21st century. The rapid pace of change today has rendered the Waterfall Model largely obsolete, and its place has been taken by myriad competing methodologies, Agile Computing being one of them. This methodology fits Rowden’s “Cascades in the Pacific Northwestern United States” model, where the ultimate goal is not in sight at the start of the journey; instead, we set our eyes on the nearest little summit; and as we reach each little summit on our path, the next summit – slightly higher than the preceding one – becomes visible; finally, in this incremental manner, we ultimately reach our grand summit.

How agile is the Agile Methodology? An example will illustrate the very substantial difference between this methodology and the older waterfall methodology. Waterfall would typically result in one new release (or software update) every couple of months. In comparison, using the Agile methodology, one can release over 200 software updates in a single month. Quite a difference, huh? (By the way, 200 is not a hard number or a limiting factor; it is just used as an example. One may have 2,000 software releases per month using Agile methodology, if that’s what the organization desires.)

Such mind-blowing agility is achieved in a software development team by explicitly implementing some of the group behaviors that are recognized as Groupthink:

--1-- Illusion of invulnerability: Agile methodology encourages excessive optimism as a necessary corollary to superfast software code production. Errors arising out of missed vulnerability are mitigated incrementally down the road.
--2-- Collective rationalization: Agile methodology encourages programmers to discount warnings and not reconsider their assumptions as they work at a feverish pace. Since this is essentially incremental development, with the unit of production being very small, the damage caused by mistakes is minimal, and is eliminated by future steps.
--3-- Belief in inherent morality: N/A
--4-- Stereotyped views of out-groups: N/A
--5-- Direct pressure on dissenters: Team members are asked not to express arguments against their leader’s technical design or instructions. The rapid prototyping will highlight design errors down the road, and since the unit of production is extremely small, the impact of a design error is minimal and easily mitigated by the process.
--6-- Self-censorship: Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed. (See above.)
--7-- Illusion of unanimity: The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
--8-- Self-appointed ‘mind guards’: N/A

This just goes to show that when a process is well understood, it can probably be put to positive use in some context.

Ackoff, R.L., Gupta, S.K. & Minas, J.S. (1962). Scientific Method. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hackman, J.R. & Kaplan, R.E. (1974). Interventions into group process: An approach to improving the effectiveness of groups. Decision Sciences, 5 (1974), 459-480.
Hogg M.A. & Hains, S.C. (1998). Friendship and group identification: A new look at the role of cohesiveness in groupthink. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 323341.
Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Second Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Janis, Irving L., & Mann, L. (1977). Decision-making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice and Commitment. New York: Free Press.
Rowden, R. W. (2001). The Learning Organization and Strategic Change. Advanced Management Journal.
Shaw, M. (1981). Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small Group Behavior. 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.


More on Groupthink:
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How to Avoid Groupthink? Six Thinking Hats
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What is a Group. Types of Groups
Group Thinking and Precast Rituals
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